“Do you have HIV-AIDS?” the social worker asked when Petronila applied for housing.
“I’m positive that I’m negative!” Petronila replied.
“OK, how about a mental disorder?” the social worker pressed.
“I mean, I get a little depressed,” Petronila admitted, “but it’s not like I see ghosts or hear voices or anything like that!”
“I’m very sorry,” said the social worker, “but you don’t match the criteria. I need you to help us help you, miss, and you’ve failed me. Come back when you have HIV!”
Petronila, an all-too-real fictional character, tried to get access to public housing Saturday night at Fair Haven’s Bregamos Community Theater space at Erector Square.
She went on her quest during a performance of Park Bench Prophet, a new play by Concrete Justice, a New York-based radical theater troupe.
The company, founded by New Haven native Katy Rubin and part of an artistic collective called Theater of the Oppressed NYC, turns audience members into actors in order to probe homelessness, unemployment, and racial discrimination. Many of its members, who double as actors and playwrights, have experienced those problems firsthand.
Concrete Justice works hard to break down the barriers between audience and performers.The result is that everyone at the show, both onstage and offstage, leaves the theater thinking about the problems of oppression—and about possible ways to solve them.
In this case, the show consisted of a series of sketches centered around the character of the Park Bench Prophet. The Prophet is a homeless person who does not ask for money, but tries to share words of wisdom with the people around her. Blinded by prejudice, they refuse to listen. By the end of the play, however, the audience had found several ways to make her voice heard.
“Raise your hand if you have problems!” Rubin yelled at the beginning of the show.
Every single member in the audience put a hand up.
“Good!” said Rubin. “That means we can do the show.”
From the start to the end, the show pushed the audience to take an active role in what was happening onstage. The theater-goers were told that they were not just passive spectators, but active “spect-actors.”
The ideas behind this breaking of barriers come from writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher who thought that having a teacher speak in front of a passive class was the best way to ruin an education. According to Freire, traditional schools did not teach kids how to think, but only how to obey.
Theater of the Oppressed is what happens when you apply Freire’s theories to the performing arts. Its founder, Augusto Boal, realized that normal theater created a similar problem to that of old-school classrooms. Like students in traditional schools, spectators in older forms of theater simply watched the action without ever participating.
This separation between audience and actors was particularly problematic when the play was about the plight of underprivileged people, because it created the illusion that the audience members didn’t have anything to do with the drama to which they were witnesses. The separation made it seem as if the problems enacted on stage could happen only to others, to “those people”—and never to the spectators themselves. Audience members could feel pity for the characters, but were left unable to empathize with them.
The truth, however, is that everyone has a stake in the problems of everyone else, and that nobody is immune to poverty and discrimination. A truly political play would have to do more than just deal with real issues: it would have to involve the audience as much as the actors. To solve these problems, Boal invented “forum theater.” The show begins with a more-or-less traditional play, which is followed by a debate among the audience members, who try to identify some of the social problems they saw onstage.
Then comes the truly radical part: The facilitator invites the audience to get onstage and play the role of an oppressed person in one of the situations enacted in the play. The “spect-actor” then tries to come up with a solution to the problem posed by the situation. The audience and the actors then discuss the effectiveness of the new solution.
The result is a rowdy mixture of play, seminar, and town hall meeting in which everyone is involved.
“Come Back In 72 Hours”
The various sketches of Saturday night’s play commented on issues as diverse as access to housing, racial profiling, women’s rights, and economic discrimination. Each of the scenes, all of them based on the cast’s life experiences, was compact, furiously ironic, and often quite funny. With a combination of over-the-top dialogue and playful use of camp and cliché, the sketches aimed at making explicit what goes unsaid in interactions between oppressed people and those around them.
For example, one of the more successful sketches involved two friends, one of whom was sick. They headed to the hospital—with the ER theme song playing in the background, to great comedic effect. They put their names down at the emergency room and sat down to wait for the doctor. When the physician finally got there, he took a single look at the two friends and shook his head.
“Who are this people?” he asked his secretary. “Look at their clothes. They smell bad. I’m assuming they don’t have health insurance. I know I just got in, but since I’m a doctor I’m going to abuse my power and take a three-hour lunch break.”
When the doctor came back, the two friends were still there. Frustrated, the doctor tried to get rid of them by giving them what he assumed they wanted—a prescription for Percocet.
“But doctor, you haven’t even looked at him!” said the sick man’s friend.
“It’s OK—the prescription is for generic medication,” the doctor replied. “Drink a lot of fluids, get enough rest, and come back in 72 hours.”
Another sketch featured an African-American man listening to music on his cellphone and dancing on the street. Two police officers, who wanted to fill their arrest quota in time to go watch the Super Bowl, decided that the man looked suspicious.
“That’s an expensive phone,” one of the cops said to the man. “Where do you work that you have so much money? Where do you live? What do you have in your pockets? Show me some ID!”
“I live over there,” the man replied, pointing towards the audience, “and I work at the precinct, 30 seconds away.”
The cops didn’t believe him.
“What do you mean ‘over there?’ You live in the park? For your safety and mine, sir, I’m going to handcuff you,” said one of the cops.
“What for?” said the man. “Why are you arresting me?”
“I’m not arresting you, but if you keep on resisting I’m going to have to,” the officer replied, suddenly incensed.
Meanwhile, the other cop called the precinct and learned, to her surprise, that the man did work there and did in fact live “over there.” The cops released the man and apologized for the hassle.
“You fit a description of a robbery that happened nearby,” one of the cops explained.
“What do you mean I fit a description?” asked the man, indignant.
“Well, you know, a black man dancing in the street—it’s pretty scary,” the cop replied.
Park Bench Prophet
The man left, but the cops still needed to fill their quota. They noticed that the Prophet was sleeping on her bench nearby. They walked up to her and arrested her. Her crime? “Obstructing a public bench.”
The most powerful sketches featured the Park Bench Prophet as main character. The Prophet, who at different points was played by every actor in the show, delivered a series of monologues that stood up to anything seen at the Yale Repertory Theater. In one of the scenes, the Prophet pointed at different members of the audience, prophesying their fates.
“You are going to meet the love of your life today,” she told one spect-actor. “He’s sitting somewhere in this theater!”
After several such positive predictions, the Prophet turned sad, and looked at no one in particular.
“I’m really sorry that I have to tell you this,” she said. “But next Monday, when you go back to work, your boss is going to take you to the side, and he’s going to let you go. You’ll reach out for your friends and family, but they won’t be able to help you—they have problems of their own. You won’t be able to pay your bills, and you’re going to find yourself living in the street. It could happen to you.”
The result was a chill down the audience’s spine. The line between the stage and their own lives became blurry. The issues depicted by the play were no longer just the problems of “those people.”
“I See A Hippo!”
As expected, the forum section of Saturday night’s play was the most interesting part of the show.
After the audience discussion, Rubin invited the spect-actors to try out some of the roles they had seen. The first person who got on stage was a young woman who’d come to the show from Bridgeport with Creative Youth Productions, a non-profit group that promotes youth leadership through the arts. She asked to reenact the scene in which Petronila tried to get access to public housing.
The young woman, who performed so well it was hard to believe she was not a professional actress, playfully subverted the social worker’s questionnaire.
“Do you have a mental disorder?” asked the social worker.
“Sometimes, when I look at my face in the mirror, I see a hippo!” replied the spect-actor.
The audience erupted in laughter—but that doesn’t mean that the improvised sketch wasn’t taken seriously. After the girl left the stage, Rubin led a discussion in which the audience debated whether or not it was a good idea to lie in a situation like that.
“She might get in trouble with the cops—what she did was essentially fraud!” said one audience member.
“But she needs to get housing,” replied another spect-actor. “She has to prioritize getting a roof over her head, and then worry about other things.”
“But she’s going to be adding another layer of stigma to her identity!” a third one interjected. “Now people are going to think of her as homeless and mentally ill.”
“Besides, she might be taking away the opportunity to have housing from someone who is actually mentally ill,” someone else said.
“I take an issue with that,” said Rafael Ramos, who directs Bregamos and was present in the audience. “She needs the housing just as much as anyone else!”
The forum went on for almost an hour. When Rubin finally called it a night, it seemed that the audience would have wanted to go on for longer.
Or at least that was the impression one got when so many people signed up for the workshops that Concrete Justice will be holding over the next few days to teach people how to do theater of the oppressed. We are all actors in own lives, after all, and could very well use some rehearsing.